Correction to This Article
This Style review of "Once" incorrectly said that the movie marked actor Glen Hansard's feature debut. He made his debut in 1991 in "The Commitments."

For 'Once,' A Musical Strikes the Right Chords

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

"Once" may be cinema's first bona fide alt-Celtic indie busker musical.

At a time when the musical genre has been colonized by sub-par schlock like "Dreamgirls" and "Chicago," director John Carney's resuscitation of the form is all the more welcome. Glen Hansard, of the Irish band the Frames, makes an improbably electrifying screen debut as a street singer in Dublin, who accepts farthings for covering other people's songs by day, saving his own angsty but unabashedly pretty ballads for the more discerning nighttime passersby.

One of his most loyal fans is a young Czech woman, played by Marketa Irglova. She and the singer embark on a shy, flirtatious friendship. She reveals that she plays a little piano herself, and soon they've entered into a surprisingly fruitful artistic collaboration and -- in a nod to the musical's most enduring convention -- a tentative romance.

The best thing of the many very good things about "Once" is the clever way Carney integrates the musical numbers into the narrative. Rather than giving Hansard a rainy street, an umbrella and an orchestra, he lets the songs occur organically, as spontaneous moments of vagrant beauty. So Hansard and Irglova pop into a music store at lunch hour and perform a lovely impromptu duet at one of the pianos; Hansard delivers a funny ditty riding her home on a bus; with friends at a winy dinner, they share a postprandial tune. Unlike most musicals that depend on a whopping suspension of disbelief, "Once" seems to be saying, "Hey, it could happen."

The wittiest example of Carney's ingenuity is when Irglova's character is trying to come up with lyrics to one of Hansard's melodies. While the music plays on her earphones, the camera follows her out of her house while she runs an errand and returns; the tracking shot -- only interrupted once -- finally pulls back to reveal that she's wearing a pair of absurdly fuzzy bedroom slippers. In another scene, a bank manager they've approached for a loan to cut a demo record admits -- what else? -- that he's a singer-songwriter, too!

"Once" offers a thoroughly welcome, tuneful alternative to the blockbusters hogging screens, but it helps -- a lot -- if you're a big Frames fan. Hansard is undoubtedly a charismatic, compelling screen presence, and he has a ferocious way with a song's dynamics. In an early sequence, the camera slowly zooms in on his face as his voice grows in intensity from a lyrical Cat Stevens-like purr to a howl. The effect is electrifying. (One clue to the aggression that lurks beneath that emo exterior is the extra sound hole Hansard has worn into his acoustic guitar.) Still, the songs in "Once" begin to sound too much alike, and by the time that demo is being cut they literally begin to repeat.

The audience's musical predispositions aside, "Once" is also a must-see for anyone longing to spend time in Dublin. As much a love song to that great city as anything else, the film plunges viewers into its streets and rapidly globalizing culture with intimacy and affection. When "Once" takes its final, unexpected turns, you might be surprised by how completely you've been taken in by what has seemed to be an easygoing, low-conflict story. The final shot packs a startling emotional punch and, like the rest of the movie, unfolds with deceptive lyricism and grace.

Once (85 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row) is rated R for (distinctly Irish) profanity.

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